Monday, February 08, 2010

William Tenn/Phil Klass and the Meaning of Chutzpah

I'm not sure when, exactly, was the first time I met Phil Klass (aka William Tenn). I think we met at one or two cons in the '70s or '80s. I was familiar with some of his writing, especially "Child's Play" and "On Venus, Have We got a Rabbi!" But, by 1993, I turned out to have a fairly close connection to Phil and Fruma -- my husband Jim and I bought a house about a half mile away from theirs in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon. And their daughter, Adina, was only about four years older than our daughter Leslie. Over the next few years, we'd run into each other at various science fiction club events and at Confluence, the local SF con.

I'd often run into people who'd had Phil as a teacher at Penn State. Many of these people were in fandom, but I've probably met a dozen people at various companies in the Pittsburgh area who weren't SF fans but still remembered Professor Klass very fondly.

By the late '90s, Jim had an idea -- NESFA Press should reprint all of Phil's fiction. Since most of his fiction hadn't been reprinted in years, this would help expose more of his writing to more readers. It took a few months to develop the contract to Phil's exacting specifications, but the results by the early '00s were two terrific volumes of all of William Tenn's fiction: Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization.

So we started working with Phil and Fruma a little more closely. He'd greet me with "Hello, Laurie. And why do they say all those terrible things about you?" The first time he did that, I wasn't sure how to react. I'd just laugh nervously and we'd go on from there. But, gradually, I noticed he only said that to people he liked, so that was fine by me!

When the Nebula Awards Weekend was in sudden search of a new site, I suggested bringing it to Pittsburgh, and SFWA took me up on that. SFWA also made William Tenn the Author Emeritus for the 1999 Nebula Awards Weekend. So there was Phil, resplendent in a tux, speaking to all the assembled writers, signing autographs for many of them.

Late 2003 and early 2004 I was consumed by work, collecting of Phil's non-fiction writing in a GoH book for Noreascon IV. Phil's non-fiction was full of little gems, especially a wonderful piece about his parents "Constantinople," and a long and fascinating piece on electronic surveillance in the '60s, "The Bugmaster." While we agreed on almost everything, we had two disagreements over the production of this book.

There were two interview transcriptions -- one long and the other very long. I wanted to edit out about 10% of the short interview, and maybe 25% of the longer interview to cut down on the repetitions (there are at least three stories told three different ways in the course of his non-fiction collection). Phil was adamant that nothing be edited, except to correct egregious errors. I finally got him to agree to some minimal editing, mostly removing side comments between Phil and the videographer.

We couldn't agree on the title.

For years, instead of saying "Thank-you very much," Phil would say, "For that, I'll dance naked on a table for you." I loved that phrase from him, and, felt it would be a good title for his collection of non-fiction. Because his non-fiction is quite honest. Also, Deb Geisler, the chair of Noreascon IV, loved it too.

Perhaps Phil and Fruma felt the title was too undignified or something so they resisted it. I'm not sure they ever came up with an alternative suggestion. Finally, after about a year of back and forth, they agreed to the title. The artist Bob Eggleton did a wonderfully comic take on the title for the cover. Undignified or not, Dancing Naked brought Phil his first Hugo nomination.

Noreascon IV chose William Tenn as one of their GoHs for 2004. With a lot of help from their old State College friends Kathy and Jim Morrow, and their daughter Adina, Phil and Fruma were able to go everywhere and do everything at the Worldcon.

In the late '00s, they were not able to travel as much. They still came out to Confluence every year, and sometimes drove to eastern Pennsylvania to visit Adina. By the fall of '09, Phil was in and out of several hospitals. He really enjoyed getting cards from people. He was particularly pleased to have heard from a fan from Norway. By late November, Fruma was able to bring him home. While very weak, he appreciated people's visits, and he was fairly alert.

Phil (and William Tenn) died on February 7, 2010, at home of congestive heart failure.

My favorite Phil Klass story took place 12 years before I was even born, at the end of World War II. Phil could exaggerate, but I'm sure this story is close to 100% true.

Phil was a short man, maybe about 5'2" or so. But what he failed to have in height, he more than made up for in bravado and chutzpah.

Phil was in the Army for most of World War II. He scored a very high rating on language aptitude. He was sent to the Univesity of Pittsburgh with 24 other soldiers for intensive training in Serbo-Croation. The plan was, they'd be sent to help liberate Yugoslavia.

It turned out, Phil never got to Yugoslavia, despite having learned Serbo-Croation. And most of the rest of his classmates were sent to the Pacific, where no one spoke Serbo-Croation.

But Phil was sent back to Europe. Since he spoke several languages (in addition to English and Serbo-Cration), he was eventually assigned to be a translator. One of his jobs was to translate for the former concentration camp guards.

So, picture this -- a short, Jewish American army soldier from New York City translating for tall, Aryan Nazi guards who'd spent years facilitating the slaughter of Jewish prisoners.

One of the guards finally asked him, "You speak an unusual kind of German. What is it?"

Phil looked the guard in the eye and said, "It's Yiddish."

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Surviving the Snowpocalypse

A few weeks ago, Jim discovered we could attend five Pittsburgh Symphony concerts for the price of four. Since we didn't get to any PSO concerts last year, we'd never seen the new conductor, Manfred Honeck, at work. The concert I particularly wanted to see was Anne-Sophie Mutter playing a Brahams violin concerto.

So, Jim bought tickets for Friday, February 5.

Yes, the snowstorm was predicted, but we didn't expect more than five inches or so by Friday night.

I had a suggestion - why don't we use some of our Marriott points and just stay in town.

Jim tought this was a bad idea. However, in case we got seriously stuck somewhere, I packed the essentials - pajamas, change of clothes, toilet articles, my camera and my laptop.

4:30: We left very early, expecting road problems. But while we had 1"-2" of snow by then, the roads had been pretty well treated and there wasn't much traffic.

5:30: We had a very nice dinner, my belated birthday dinner, at the Braddock's American Brassiere (site of the former Opus at the Rennaisance). One of the chefs from the Inn at Little Washington is a chef there. Highly recommend it.

8:00: The concert was great, Mutter was wonderful playing Brahms' Violin Concerto. She sounded fabulous (of course!) and was wearing a striking gold gown. I'm very glad we went.

9:15: Odd bit at the concert for the Mahler Symphony #1. For a symphony orchestra, all the musicians are onstage when the concert starts, and stay all the way through, even the guy who clangs the cymbals one time. One trumpet player wandered onstage about five minutes after the Mahler started, and two more showed
up a bit later. Is this the orchestral version of a job action? [[Nope, it turns out it's a traditional part of this piece.]]

10:15: When we went to get our car, the roads weren't too bad. There was, maybe 4"-5" of snow.

We figured driving home would be slow but doable. By 10:30, we were out of the garage and headed for the Fort Pitt Bridge and tunnel.

The Fort Pitt Bridge is a double-decker, four lane bridge that goes over the Monongehela River, just before it joins with the Allegheny to form the Ohio. Two of the lanes go into the tunnel under Mt. Washington, and the other two go down to West Carson St. The Fort Pitt Tunnel is usually the most convenient way to travel if you're going south or west of Pittsburgh.

Mt. Washington is a fairly steep ridge south of downtown Pittsburgh. You really don't want to drive over it in the snow. And there are some other pretty big ridges south of that.

As we approached the bridge, the traffic stopped. At that point, we couldn't turn around and had to stay on the bridge.

And so, we crept across the bridge. It looked like the tunnel might be closed, but there was no way to tell for sure.

11:00: We were still on the bridge, and listened to the news. As with the flash flooding back in June, the "news station KDKA" was useless in providing local weather and traffic information during a potentially dangerous situation. KDKA reported that the tunnel and the Parkway West "had restrictions."

After a few more minutes, we found that the tunnel was completely closed, and all the traffic was routed down to West Carson St. It had been closed for over a half hour at that point.

If we thought the traffic was slow on the bridge, at least it moved a little. At one point on West Carson St., we moved 1/10th of a mile in a half hour.

As we were sitting on West Carson, I was dreading the trip through the West End. In retrospect, at the West End, I should have taken the back way to the Parkway West past the tunnel. But, there were fewer miles to home if I went along Stueben St., so that's the way I drove. And, unlike Carson Street, there wasn't much traffic. But there are some very steep hills on twisty streets. Luckily, there was no one in front of me by the time I got through to Stueben St.

But what I didn't expect since it wasn't at all windy - fallen branches and downed wires. The snow was heavy enough that it tore down branches all over the place, especially along Stueben St. There were intermittent power failures. The branches were mostly over in the other lane.

I burned rubber going up and over the hill, but I made it to Route 60, which would get me west of the city. I figured it should be slow but clear sailing from there.

12:15: There was a police roadblock after the bridge on the western side of Crafton. A few semis had jacknifed on Route 60 near Interstate 79. That part of the road was closed. The only alternate route was up and down hills so twisty I don't drive them in good weather. We pulled into a
closed gas station near the roadblock to consider our options.

I promised Jim I would limit saying "I told you so" to once an hour.

12:45: After about a half an hour and no progress (also, no snowplows on this fairly
major road), we consdered taking another back way we knew slightly. Jim had his GPS, so we
couldn't get that lost. The police thought that way had been plowed and would be pretty clear.

We got back onto Route 60 going back towards Pittsburgh, and turned to Ingram. We followed the most plowed road.

Turned out, the most plowed road for about two miles was the road to the massive Giant Eagle distribution center. *sigh*

We turned around and headed back to Ingram Rd. We turned onto West Prospect, which, while hilly, showed some signs of being plowed.

Big mistake. As we went over the top of a hill, we realized the plowing abruptly stopped. And a car was off the road. Yikes.

Very carefully, I was able to get us turned around. but it took what seemed like a very long time to get the car moving back up the hill again. Burning rubber and then some. But, I got back up to the top of the hill, got back to Route 60 and went back to the relative safety of the gas station.

While there was a motel about a quarter mile past the roadblock, it had no electricity (and the police didn't recommend it when there was electricity). Hard to tell how much snow. Maybe eight
inches. Oh, and did I mention the freezing rain? But, we still had plenty of gas.

The police said even after they got the trucks cleared off of Route 60, Route 22, which took us most of the rest of the way home, was a major mess.

Last report I heard said maybe up to 14" of snow our way... We were only supposed to get about 10" at the most.

2:15-2:45: Started writing this. I'm glad I had my laptop with a good battery!

2:45-5:00: Dozed on and off.

5:00: The snowplow for the gas station arrived. I moved a bit so I wouldn't get plowed in. Got out and cleaned off about 2 more inches of snow.

5:30: More stuck cars on Route 60, no snowplows for 60 yet. Road still closed west of here after nearly 6 hours. Now, people in 4x4s are waiting it out in the gas station lot.

6:10: Plows FINALLY plowed 60! The police left the gas station!

6:20: We got about a mile and a half further west...and see a newly jack-knifed truck
about three trucks in front of us. We're stopped on the hill near the 79 interchange. I hope
we can get moving again before the wet road turns to ice.

7:00: Still on the hill. There's been all kinds of equipment around the jacknifed truck, but
nothing is moving. Scarily, there's now a long line of traffic going westbound in the eastbound

7:10: Looks like the jacknifed truck is FINALLY out of the way! The Robinson township cops did amazing work all night long. I think the same guy we saw from midnight until 6 staffing the roadblock was the same guy stopping traffic around the jackknifed truck.

7:40: The plowing crew did a very thorough job around the jackknifed trailer. We actually got from Route 60 to Route 22 in Robinson without trouble - it was slow but not scarey and there were no unexpected stops. The 79-60 interchange was a nightmere - completely impassible from 79.

8:00: 22 was snowcovered and passable. However, the exits hadn't been plowed. Since our usual exit was very long, we got off in Imperial, so I could hit the bathroom (for the first time in 11 hours!) and get a drink. The roads were snowcovered but passible the whole rest of the way. To our surprise, our street had been plowed. But, that meant the first thing we had to do was to clear away enough snow so we could park our car in the driveway.

9:00: Finally IN THE HOUSE. I'm finishing up this epic tale of snowpocalypse survival. Jim is going to bed. We don't have to leave the house until Monday. Except for lots more shoveling (and, I hope, some snowblowing) we won't have to. Looks like we got nearly 14" in McDonald, but it's hard to tell because of the snowdrifts.